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Borders and walls: Masha Gessen talks Jewish experience

September 20, 2019

Courtesy of the Office of Communications
Masha Gessen, the renowned journalist and award-winning author, delivered the Harry Spindel Memorial Lecture Thursday evening.

On Thursday night, Masha Gessen, a renowned Russian Jewish journalist, delivered this year’s Harry Spindel Memorial Lecture to a full and engaged audience in Kresge Auditorium. The lecture, titled “Jews and Borders,” delved into the idea of migration and dispersion as central tenets of Jewish identity, while also drawing attention to common experiences amongst different ethnic minorities. Gessen, as a Jew who has experienced displacement, articulated a feeling of responsibility to stand up for other ethnic, cultural and religious minorities being constrained by borders today.

“There is a common experience of being Jewish,” Gessen said. “It’s not the religion, it’s not any of our languages, it’s not the way we look, it’s not unique to Jews. The experience of any diasporic people, of displaced people, is that leaving is always an option. You’re never exactly where you belong if you’re in a diaspora.”

Gessen discussed the experience of being in a diaspora in tandem with the idea of Jewish nationalism, a concept that has changed throughout history. Gessen opened the lecture with a quote from Simon Dubnow, a Russian Jewish author, in which he defines Jewish nationalism as an intrinsically peaceful movement that does not necessitate Jews leaving the nation-states within which they already reside.

“Jewish nationalism in essence has nothing in common with any tendency toward violence,” Gessen read. “It is concerned with only one thing: protecting its national individuality … [it] is an outstanding example of a collective individuality which protects its own from attacks against the outside but never … [attacks] … on its own.”

From this starting point, Gessen wove a personal story about being a Jewish refugee into a discussion of contemporary examples of borders and walls in the United States and Israel.

It was Gessen’s personal experience with migration and reporting on current events involving ethnic minorities that interested members of the committee tasked with inviting a speaker, including Associate Professor of Russian Alyssa Gillespie.

“[Migration] is both a specifically Jewish experience and topic with a lot of specificity and Jewish history and Jewish experience, but it also really does link in with these issues of migration that are of concern worldwide right now,” said Gillespie.

Gessen who is currently the John J. McCloy ’16 Professor of American Institutions and International Diplomacy at Amherst College and a staff writer at The New Yorker, was born in the Soviet Union. As a child in the USSR, Gessen conceived of Judaism as something negative—it was the reason Gessen was bullied at school.

“I thought that’s what being Jewish meant,” said Gessen. “We didn’t have a language, we didn’t have a culture in particular … but [we were] easily identified and [had] this sense of being different.”

However, due to the activism of the American Movement for Soviet Jewry, Gessen’s family and other Soviet Jews had the opportunity to do the one thing that no other group, including other persecuted ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, received permission to do: leave. Gessen left the Soviet Union for the United States at 14, in 1981, and remained in the country until returning after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. Gessen remained in Russia until around six years ago, when it became too dangerous for outspoken critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, such as Gessen, to remain in the country.

“I didn’t want to leave; I have a strong sense of home,” Gessen said. “My home is [in Russia], … but I can’t go back.”

Gillespie sees this attachment to Russia within the context of political oppression as a core theme of Gessen’s books. Gillespie views Gessen’s written work as both an honest investigation into the horrors that take place under authoritarianism and as a celebration of the resilience of Russian people and Russian culture.

“I don’t want the story about Russia to always be a negative story, because that’s what we always hear in our media now,” Gillespie said. “There’s this incredible culture there of people, of courageous intellectuals and artists and activists who are fearless in the face of authoritarianism and are willing to fight the good fight, and Gessen’s books profile those people.”

Gessen’s most recent book, “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” won the National Book Award in 2017.

Toward the end of the talk, Gessen discussed the role of Jewish people in advocating for the rights of minorities who are currently being marginalized, focusing specifically on the debate over whether to use the term “concentration camps” to describe centers in which the United States government is holding asylum seekers from Central America and the “Never Again Is Now” movement led by young Jewish Americans to call attention to those exact detention centers.

“Jewish groups, including the [United States] Holocaust [Memorial] Museum, spoke out against using the term ‘concentration camp’ because they see it as belonging to a moment in history that is unique in its cruelty and unique in its carnage, and that using the term again lessens the understanding of that cruelty,” Gessen said. “I think it’s the opposite; I think that when the phrase ‘never again’ was first uttered, it meant that … the thing that had happened in the Holocaust, was imaginable, was possible. If it was possible once, it was possible again. That is why you needed to say never again.”

Gessen discussed other matters of Jewish responsibility, too, including describing a fraught personal relationship with the state of Israel due to its treatment of Palestinians. Gessen ultimately voiced a desire to abolish national borders entirely, explaining that, as Gessen experienced in the Soviet Union, borders always seek to either keep a group of people in or keep a group of people out.

After the talk, Associate Professor of History Page Herrlinger addressed Gessen’s application of Jewish experiences with borders to other contemporary political contexts.

“It was both a very Jewish talk as it should’ve been,” Herrlinger said. “But it was also a very universal talk … there’s a particular Jewish history around the notion of borders, obviously, but it is so applicable in so many different contexts today.”


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